Mickey Rooney was almost always on stage in front of people. As a child actor, he starred in 78 comedies between 1927 and 1936 as Mickey McGuire before becoming more universally known as Judy Garland's on-screen partner in countless movies. The early parts of his career are probably what he's most remembered for, but by the time he was 30 in 1950, Rooney started doing more dramatic roles, some obviously better than others. Rarely the star, mostly a key supporting character, that's how I think of Rooney, an underrated character actor who always kept his parts interesting regardless of the quality of the movie.
One movie that wasn't particularly bad but wasn't particularly good either was 1951's My Outlaw Brother, a low budget western that has since lapsed into public domain. It's typical of so many westerns made in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s that studios churned out as quick as they could make them. They usually offer a chance to see some well-known stars before they were stars in quirky but still entertaining stories that clearly didn't have very large budgets. This isn't Rooney's best part as he was trying to establish himself as a more serious actor, but it's an interesting watch for western fans.
Assigned a dangerous mission, Texas Ranger Joe Walter (Robert Preston) must ride across the Rio Grande into Mexico to the small mountain town of San Clemente. There an American, Patrick O'Moore (Robert Stack), is working with an Indian bandit, El Tigre, terrorizing the country. Walter must bring him out alive and back across the border so he can face justice. It looks and sounds like suicide, but with his trusty horse Sunny under him, Walter accepts and rides south. Along the trail, he meets another ride heading to San Clemente and is more than a little surprised to find out the man is Patrick's younger brother from New York City, Denny (Rooney), who's going to visit his brother after many years apart. Could this chance meeting help his odds?
The problem with most of these public domain movies is that the prints available on TV or the ones you can buy on DVD are pretty low quality after decades of mishandling and poor care. That's the case here with a poor print that is at different times fuzzy or scratchy with the audio volumes dipping in and out. With a decent print, the black and white filming would be halfway decent with some authentic looking locations. The movie was filmed at Estudios Tepeyac and when the story does venture outside, we get some cool locations, especially an abandoned mission where Patrick's hideout is. The music is not memorable, and the story nothing new in the least either, but I was rarely bored.
You can attribute most if not all of that sentiment to the cast. I don't know if he was a great actor (I've only seen him in four or five movies), but Preston is one of the most watchable movie stars I can think of. Playing the Texas Ranger, he's an ideal for that laconic, capable, and tough character, guiding Rooney's inexperienced cowboy Denny along the trail. Rooney got top billing, but Preston was really the star. Stack doesn't fare as well as the possibly villainous Patrick. He looks ridiculous duded up as a Mexican vaquero and ends up delivering a stiff performance that doesn't make you care one way or the other what happens to him. There's a twist late about Patrick, but it comes out of left field and feels like a rushed ending wrapped up nicely with a bow. Also look for Wanda Hendrix as Carmela Alvarado, a possible love interest, and Jose Torvay as a hot-tempered, vengeful blacksmith.
Some of Rooney's better parts would come in the years following My Outlaw Brother, but this feels like one where he's still trying to figure things out. Is it a drama or a comedy? Is his character a brawler or a klutz? And how in the hell does he manage to seduce Hendrix's Alvarado? Rooney goes for a broader playing of Denny O'Moore, a city boy traveling into the wilderness for the first time and always getting into scrapes where he needs to be rescued. A solid drinking game while watching this movie would be to take a shot for every time Rooney says 'Ow!' You'd be wasted pretty quickly. Still, he's got a good chemistry with Preston, and that helps carry the movie through its rougher patches.
Watch the full movie HERE starting with Part 1 of 9.
My Outlaw Brother (1951): **/****